Behave: Summary & Review

behave book cover

Behave (2017) is Robert Sapolsky’s Magnus opera. It’s a multi-disciplinary approach mixing evolutionary psychology, biology, and anthropology to explain what makes us humans and what causes and influences our thoughts and behavior.


About The Author:  Robert Sapolsky is an American neuroendocrinologist and author.
He is currently a professor of biology and professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University

Note: Excluded in This Summary
In this summary of “Behave,” I will not go into the description of the brain—not needed for our purposes—and Sapolsky’s long dissertation on “free” will”—philosophically interesting but a practical time waste.

You Need to Think in an Interdisciplinary Way

Sapolsky’s message and his goal with “Behave” are to provide an interdisciplinary approach to people and psychology.

He says that you cannot look at the trees without losing sight of the forest.
You need an interdisciplinary approach.

The Underappreciated Temporal Elements of What Influence Behavior

Many disciplines study what influences our behavior.

And depending on when we act, different causes tend to be the most immediate triggers:

  • A second before we act: neurological
  • From seconds to minutes before we act: environment and sensory stimuli
  • Hours to days before we act: hormones
  • Thousands of years before we act: genetics

Testosterone Is A Status-Seeking Hormone, Not An Aggression Hormone

Testosterone makes men more aggressive, goes the cliche.

But it’s not really true:

  • Within the normal range, individual differences in T don’t predict who will be aggressive
  • The more an organism has been aggressive, the less testosterone is needed for future aggression
  • When testosterone plays a role, it’s facilitatory, T doesn’t create aggression, it just makes people more sensitive to triggers for aggression, particularly in those predisposed to aggression
  • T fosters aggression only during challenges to status
  • T increases whatever behavior is needed to maintain status, which, depending on context, might also lead to more generosity

Studies that link aggression to testosterone also cannot pinpoint causality because aggression also increases testosterone.

When the differences in testosterone concentration in an individual are within the normal distribution, there are no differences in behavior.
When they are huge, then individuals become more aggressive.

However, individuals who decide to increase their testosterone might already be predisposed toward more aggression.

In the end, different levels of testosterone are not good at explaining why some individuals are more aggressive than others.
And the actual effect depends on context.

An increase in risk-taking, for example, which is linked to testosterone, might lead to taking a risk and making a peace offer.
It also makes people feel good, potentially leading to more prosocial behavior.
And when status is awarded through prosocial behavior, higher doses of testosterone make people behave more generously.

In sum, testosterone makes people seek status.
But what awards status is context-dependent, so the effects of testosterone are context-dependent.

So the problem is not that testosterone causes aggression; the problem is the frequency with which our society rewards aggression.

Oxytocin Is Not What You Think It Is (In-Group Against Everyone Else)

If testosterone has too bad a reputation, oxytocin is coasting on a falsely good reputation.


  • Increases mother/child bond
  • Encourages monogamous pair-bonding
  • Enhances trust and social affiliation
  • Makes people more cooperative and generous
  • When dealing with “them” it makes us more ethnocentric and xenophobic 

There is a huge caveat for oxytocin, the “love hormone”: it only increases trust and generosity towards the “us”, or the ingroup.
It is nice to “us” and worse to everyone else.

Just like testosterone, the effects of oxytocin are dramatically dependent on context, who you are, your environment, and who that person is.

Why Adolescents Care So Much About What Others Think

It seems like adolescents are particularly sensitive to what others think of them.

In brain scans, the same brain area lights up when answering the questions “what do you think of yourself” and “what do others think of you”, as if the two were the same.
In adults, there is some overlap, but the two are not the same.

Adolescents also feel a stronger need to belong. 
In a game of passing the ball to each other, adults who were excluded felt bad, but then the part of the brain that rationalizes and trivializes kicks in. So they might tell themselves “who cares? it’s just a stupid ball game”. 
In adolescence, there is no brain region that activates to mitigate the pain.

You Need To Be Able To Detach Yourself Emotionally To Help Others

The person who is more likely to help and act is not the one who feels the most empathy.

Too much empathy can “crush” the person emotionally, and he does nothing -or moves away-.
Instead, the more people can regulate their empathic emotions, the more likely they are to act prosocially.

Thus, the ability to gain some detachment is one predictor of who actually does take action.
That’s why adolescents tend to be more empathic but can get overwhelmed and take no action.

This theory, taken to an extreme, has led some psychologists to suggest that psychopaths with zero empathy can make for more effective human beings (but I don’t fully agree).

The Wisdom of Psychopaths: Notes & Review

The Marshmallow Test Is A Good Test of Character & Odds Of Future Success

 The Marshmallow test has received a lot of criticism -see “pop psychology myths” and “psychology replication crisis“-.

But Sapolsky defends it, saying that “a gazillion-dollar brain scanner doesn’t hold more predictive power than one marshmallow”.

  • Kids with poor impulse control, who wanted to hold on but suddenly ate the marshmallow—that profile is a statistical predictor of adult violent crime
  • Kids with “steep time discount curves”, who think it makes no sense to wait—that’s a predictor of adult property crime
  • 40 years post-marshmallow excelled at frontal functions, had more PFC activation, and had lower BMIs

Bowlby and Attachment Theory: Dads May Be As Good As Moms

There is no evidence that a woman damages his child if she doesn’t breastfeed.

And nothing in the science says that the same good attachment can’t be provided by a man, two mommies, or two daddies.

My Note: Father equivalent to mother should not be implied
I’m skeptical about the “man, same as woman statement”.
The fact that science doesn’t categorically exclude that a man can provide the same attachment as a mother should not lead anyone to suggest that a father is equivalent to a mother.

Also read:

Secure Attachment Style: Overview & Examples

Abortion Lowers Crime

Liberals said it was the economy that lowered crime.
Conservatives said it was more budget for policing.

A smart study instead showed too strong a correlation between abortion laws and crime drop twenty years later not to imply causation.
Of course, the findings were controversial, but they don’t seem controversial to Sapolsky, who says:

What majorly predicts a life of crime?
Being born to a mother who, if she could, would have chosen that you had not be.
What’s the most basic thing provided by a mother? Knowing that she is happy that you exist

Bullies Pick Socially Awkward Kids As Targets

Bullying targets aren’t selected at random but tend to be those types of kids with a “kick me” sign behind their backs.

Bullied kids’ traits:

  • Personal or family psychiatrical issues
  • Poor social and emotional intelligence

Bullies’ traits:

  • Disproportionately from single-mom families
  • Young parents with poor education and/or employment prospects

Two profiles of bullies:

  • Anxious, isolated kid with poor social skills bullying out of frustration to receive acceptance (the most typical, and they mature out of bullying)
  • Confident, unempathetic, socially intelligent kid with an imperturbable sympathetic nervous system, the future sociopath

If you want to find a kid who is really likely to be a mess as an adult, it’s the kid who bullies at school, then goes home and is bullied by his parents.
These were the most likely to say “bullying is OK, and the weak deserve to be bullied”. 

Social Learning is Crucial For Character Development

A few examples:

  • Gender math differences

The differences between math scores between men and women grow smaller as the countries become more egalitarian.

And they all but disappear, even slightly inverting, in Iceland, where the genders are the most equal.

But some differences, like better reading performance by girls, get bigger in more gender-equal societies.

  • Alcohol and aggression

Alcohol makes those who believe that alcohol makes you more aggressive, more aggressive.

  • Status-related behavior

Social behaviors of submission and aggression are hardwired, but parents and socialization teach when each one is appropriate.

A monkey raised in isolation displayed all the “correct” aggressive and submissive behavior, but at the wrong times and the wrong people, challenging the alpha when it did not have the power and strength to do so.

Individualist VS Collectivist Cultures: The Differences Are Real

The differences are strong and real.

But they’re not always positive for collectivist societies and negative for individualistic ones as they’re often presented.
Both individualists and collectivists denigrate outgroups, but only collectivists inflate assessment of their own groups (and that might be why the Japanese feel they’re so good).

Individualist and collectivist cultures also produce different moral systems.
For example:

  • In collectivist societies, conformity and morality are synonymous, and law enforcement is more about shame

There is a genetic reason why the US is more individualistic, and that’s in the prevalence of the R7 allele.
People who emigrated to America, starting from the very first migration, were more restless, more driven, and more yearning for freedom and mobility.

The R7 allele is almost non-existent in Asian populations, especially in Japan and Taiwan.
The author says it’s because of rice, which requires a large social effort to support.

My Note: I don’t believe this “ad-hoc” evolutionary explanation
The author says that when Asian societies started growing rice, they also started selecting against R7 genes.
That sounded nonsense to me.

It sounds a lot like one of those “after the facts” made-up evolutionary psychology.

Inequality Makes People Unkind

Cultures with more income inequality have less social capital.

The author says that trust requires reciprocity, and reciprocity requires equality.
Instead, cultures with big gaps are the opposite, because hierarchy is about domination and asymmetry.

This shows in research in many different ways, including:

  • The higher the income inequality, the fewer people vote
  • The more income inequality, the less likely people are to help someone (in experimental settings)
  • The more income inequality, the less generous and cooperative people are in economic games

The author talks about “antisocial punishment”, whereby people punish those who cooperate too much.
High levels of inequality and/or low levels of social capital predict a high rate of bullying and antisocial punishment.

Antisocial Punishment: Why People Attack The Cooperators

People tend to punish non-cooperators and free-riders.

But, in some cases, people also punish cooperators, going by the name of “antisocial punishment”.

Why does that happen?

The author says it’s because it puts pressure on “being nice”, and some people don’t want that. It happens in cultures where people don’t trust one another -ie.: Greece and Oman-

How We Pick Our Leaders

We mostly pick unconsciously and then rationalize.

One study indeed showed that kids, ages five to thirteen, could pick the election winners 71 percent of the time.

As rules of thumb:

  • People vote competent and experience more than policies (competent-looking faces won 68% of the time)
  • People often vote to depend on single issues they care much about
  • People tend to vote for better-looking candidates
  • People tend to vote for candidates who use more “we” and “us” pronouns

This fits into the larger phenomenon of people rating attractive individuals as having better personalities people typically being rated as having better personalities and higher moral standards.

But even here, contexts matter:

  • When electing politicians, people prefer older and more masculine faces if it’s during times of war and unrest
  • But they prefer younger and more feminine faces if it’s during peacetime (of course, that doesn’t mean that picking more aggressive and masculine leaders during war must be a good idea)
  • In scenarios fostering cooperation between groups, intelligent-looking faces are preferred.

Also read:

How to Be A Leader: 13 Laws From Social-Psychology

Feeling Poor Predicts Illness

Poor people are less healthy than rich ones.

Yet, it’s not just about being poor and not having access to health care. Feelings directly correlate with a lack of health.

Violence Doesn’t Correlate With Sexual Success (Like Pinker and Evo Psych Suggest)

The author, with his usual wit and humor, criticizes the link between sexual success and killing.

Sapolsky begins by masterfully painting Chagnon as a bit of a bully himself, -but without ever saying so-.
Chagnon, says Sapolsky, “successfully establishes the Yanomano’s street cred”. 
Unluckily, his data was not as strong as that of the Yanomamo warriors. For example, Chagnon did not account for age when comparing Yanomano, who had killed, with those who hadn’t. 
And, most of all, he didn’t account for the most violent Yanomano who did not survive.

Sapolsky says that comparing the surviving killers with the non-killers is like running an analysis on veterans and concluding that wars are safe.
Indeed, the analysis should have taken into account the killers who got killed.
He has a point, and this is a criticism I also added to the otherwise wonderful Buss’ “Evolutionary Psychology“.
Sapolsky’s criticism extends to Steven Pinker himself, who indeed sometimes can go overboard with his continuous, never-ending attacks on “leftists”, “feminists” and “anthropologists of peace”.

Political Affiliation is A Psychological Profile

Consider Jonathan Haidt‘s six foundations of morality:

  • care VS harm;
  • fairness VS cheating;
  • liberty VS oppression;
  • loyalty VS betrayal;
  • authority VS subversion;
  • sanctity VS degradation

Liberals tend to value the first three, namely care, fairness, and liberty while undervaluing loyalty, authority, and sanctity.
Conservatives instead heavily value loyalty, authority, and sanctity, which often become stepping stones to right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation (for example, see the dynamics of “the red pill community“).

Obviously, that’s a big difference.
Says Sapolsky:

Is it okay to criticize your group to outsiders? Rightists: no, that’s disloyal. Leftists: yes, if justified. Should you ever disobey a law? Rightists: no, that undermines authority. Leftists: of course, if it’s a bad law. Is it okay to burn the flag? Rightists: never, it’s sacred. Leftists: come on, it’s a piece of cloth.

The differences in psychology are:

  • Conservatives:
    • dislike ambiguity
    • have a stronger need for closure
    • dislike novelty
    • perceive more threats (in all realms of life)
    • empathize more with the ingroup
    • are comforted by structure and hierarchy (obedience, loyalty, law and order)

That’s why, says Sapolsky, republicans managed to get poor whites to vote against their own interests: it’s the confirmation of the status quo, and the devil you know feels safer than social transformation.

For liberals, the government should provide for the people, but for rightists, it’s more important that the government provides protection with law and order -and go get your guns, too, just to be double safe-.

Disgust Underpins the Difference

From a biological point of view, it seems like the differences stem from the approach to the feeling of disgust.

Conservatives have a lower threshold for disgust.
Conservative Leon Kass used disgust as a formal policy, arguing that if you feel inherent disgust, then you don’t need to reason about it, you got your answer.
Sapolsky quips:

If it makes you puke, then you must rebuke

Of course, the author disagrees with it because different things disgust different people, especially when it comes to social policy (ie.: the idea of slaves being free was “disgusting” to some people only a few centuries ago).

Conservatives Are More Stupid (Some Sub-Groups, At Least)

With Theodor Adorno in the 1950s, the link between conservative affiliation and lower IQ started.
Some, but not all studies since then, have supported the conclusion.

More consistent, though is the link between lower intelligence and a specific type of conservatism, such as right-wing authoritarianism -the guys who love hierarchy.

There are two explanations as to why lower intelligence might be connected with conservative affiliation:

  1. Rightists are uncomfortable with ambiguity
  2. Leftists “think harder” and make more connections (“integrative complexity”)

For example, one study shows that both liberals and conservatives tended towards personal attribution when explaining the causes of poverty -ie.: “they’re poor because they’re lazy”-.
But given them more time to think, the liberals shifted towards situational explanations -ie.: “things are stacked against the poor”-.

Liberals and conservatives seem equally capable of thinking past gut personal attributions because, when asked to do so, both, are equally adept at presenting the viewpoints of the opposite camp.
But liberals seem to be more intrinsically motivated to push toward situational explanations.

This is why it’s easier to make a liberal more of a conservative: you just need to increase the cognitive load, add time pressure, and alcohol, or make them too tired to think.
But it’s difficult to make a conservative think like a liberal.

This differing attributional style extends beyond politics.
If given more time, a liberal is more likely to think that a guy tripped over a dance because the dance was difficult. But ask them to make snap judgments, and they are more likely to think like conservatives: the guy is clumsy.

The Impact of Environment on Parenting Teaching and Values

The role of a parent is to prepare the child for future success.

And it seems that parents adapt their parenting style to the environment in which they live:

  • In poor environments parents must prepare kids to fight: parents’ speech was full of metaphors about not losing what was achieved, such as standing your ground, keeping up your pride, and not letting others get under your skin. Parenting was authoritarian, toughening the goal. Parents teased kids far more than in the other neighborhoods.
  • Working-class parents educate for “hard offensive individualism”: families had some socio-economic momentum, and kids were meant to maintain that precarious trajectory. Parents’ speeches about their hopes for their kids contained images of movement, progress, and athletics—getting ahead, testing the waters, and going for the gold. With hard work and the impetus of generations of expectations, your child might pioneer landfall in the middle-class
  • Upper class was about psychological well-being: Children’s eventual success was a given, as were expectations of physical health. Far more vulnerable was a child’s psychological health; parents’ responsibility was to facilitate their epic journey toward an individuated “fulfillment.” 

Cultures of Honor: Between Courtesy, Hospitality, & Honor Killing Vendettas

Cultures of honor emphasize rules of civility, courtesy, and hospitality.

But also retribution, which one should always undertake for affronts to the honor of one’s self, family, or clan; failing to do so is shameful.
That’s why cultures of honor are filled with vendettas, revenge, and honor killings.

Some cultures of honor include Sicily, the mafia, the American South, and part of Latin America.

The author says that cultures of honor developed because people need to defend their status to survive and thrive.
They take place among pastors because while nobody can steal your crops, someone can steal a herd overnight.

The Stanford Prison Experiment Made Good Points About Authority’s Dark Side

Zimbardo and his famous Stanford Prison Experiment received plenty of criticism.

Haslam, an author of “The New Psychology of Leadership“, ran the BBC Prison Experiment with results very different from what Zimbardo got.

And Zimbardo, also the author of “The Lucifer Effect“, has always pushed back hard against critics (too hard for a neutral scientist, probably).

Beyond the personal anger, the author says that a few findings can be generalized:

  1. When pressured to conform and obey, a higher percentage of normal people than most would predict succumb and do awful things. 
  2. Still, there are always those who resist (some apples, even in the worst of barrels, do not go bad)

The elements that contribute to resisting authority and not committing terrible acts include:

  • Becoming aware of implicit, automatic biases;
  • Becoming aware of our sensitivity to disgust, resentment, and envy;
  • Recognizing the multiplicity of Us/Them dichotomies that we harbor and emphasizing ones in which a Them becomes an Us;
  • Contact with a Them under the right circumstances;
  • Resisting essentialism;
  • Perspective taking;
  • Rndividuating Thems.

The “nature” of the authority also plays an important role:

  • Does the authority(s) evoke veneration, identification, pants-wetting terror?
  • Is the authority in close proximity? (when the authority was in a different room, compliance decreased)
  • Does the authority come cloaked in prestige? (experiments in a warehouse had lower compliance than on Yale campus)
  • Is the authority perceived as legitimate and stable? 

The type of social pressures:

  • Groups of “Us-es” evoke more conformity than groups of Thems (Konrad Lorenz became a nazi because everyone in the social circle did, including his dad who was a kind man)
  • How many are urging us to action? (three individuals doing the same is more powerful than one person doing the same three times)
  • How many more “rebels” are there? 10 against 2 starts an “oppositional social identity”, and it is a huge difference from 11 against 1
  • Collectivist cultures tend to obey authority more

What is being required and in what context:

  • Persuasive power of incremental action: we rarely have the sense that we are “crossing the line” when we’re moving forward on a continuum (“you were OK shocking the guy at 225, but not 230? That makes no sense, come on, it’s the same”)
  • Removing personal responsibility: telling people they won’t be held responsible, or reminding them their responsibility is to the experiment, not the people being experimented (ie.: “you signed up a form”, “you’re ruining things”)
  • Diffused responsibility: compliance increases when guilt is diffused and you can tell yourself that you’re just “one cog in a big machine”
  • Anonymity and deindividuation: diffusion of responsibility happens naturally with big enough groups, that the victims can’t recognize you, and if you wear special uniforms, you can’t recognize yourself afterward
  • Possible alternatives: if we see alternatives, we are more likely to seek them, if we think there is no other option but to obey, rebellion becomes difficult

The nature of the victim:

  • The victim is an abstraction: “future generations” is an abstraction; being close to the victim or shaking hands with the victim decreased compliance in Milgram’s experiments
  • The psychological distance is increased or decreased: “how would you feel in his shoes”?
  • The victim was friendly or unfriendly towards us
  • The victim is individuated: but don’t let the authorities do it for you, they will always paint the victims as nasty

Personality of the individual that predicts compliance resistance:

  • Not valuing being conscientious or agreeable;
  • Being low in neuroticism;
  • Scoring low on right-wing authoritarianism (any authority is more likely to be questioned if you question the very concept of authority);
  • Social intelligence, which may be mediated by an enhanced ability to understand things like scapegoating or ulterior motives
  • Stress, with people being more likely to obey under stress

Women voice more verbal resistance but ultimately comply more. Gender is not much of a predictor, though.

Being a hero sometimes is as banal as the banality of evil.
Heroes are normal people, too.

Rationalizing Evil Deeds

Finally, there are rationalizations that people use to do what’s good for them, but poor for others.

Says Sapolsky:

It’s not great if someone believes it’s okay for people to do some horrible, damaging act.
But more of the world’s misery arises from people who, of course, oppose that horrible act…. But cite some particular circumstances that should make them exceptions.
The road to hell is paved with rationalization.

Cheating or Not Cheating Is Not About Struggle, It’s About Values

In a study of coin tosses and self-reporting, about a third of the subjects cheated frequently and easily.

In people capable of cheating, but who ended up resisting, there was an internal struggle and delayed response. 

People who never cheated had no internal struggle.
For them it was easy, there was no internal conflict, no different parts of the brain activating: you simply never cheat, no need to think about it.

This is not to say that honesty cannot be the result of an internal struggle, but if continuous choices are required, then it’s difficult to come out with spotless honesty without cheating a few times.

Rich People Are Greedier

Says Sapolsky:

Across the socioeconomic spectrum, on the average, the wealthier people are, the less empathy they report for people in distress and the less compassionately they act.

Because wealthier people are more likely to think of greed in positive terms, to view the class system as fair and meritocratic, and to view their success as an act of independence.
And they all mean that not acting the way they do means being “somewhat inferior”, which is a great way to decide that someone else’s distress is beneath your notice or concern.

The Invention of Religion As Moralizing Force

There are a few patterns among people and religions:

  • Desert cultures tend toward monotheistic religions
  • Rainforest cultures tend toward polytheistic religions
  • Nomadic pastoralists’ deities tend to value valor in battle as an entrée to a good afterlife (probably needed to defend cattle) 

Gods and religious orthodoxy are more important in cultures with frequent threats (war, natural disasters), inequality, and high infant mortality rates.
Probably because people turn more frequently to God for help.

And once cultures get large enough that anonymous acts become possible, they start inventing moralizing gods.
Probably to help society stay more prosocial and less threatening.

Three important points Sapolsky makes about religion:

  1. Religion reflects the values of the culture that invented or adopted it, and very effectively transmits those values;
  2. Religion fosters the best and worst of our behaviors; 
  3. It’s complicated.

Power Is Manipulating You To Keep You Down

Those on top seek justification for the inequality.

Fiske found out that when those in power can frame the underclass as high in warmth, but low in competence, it can help stabilize the status quo (Fiske and Cuddy, 2002).
The powerful feel good about their presumed benevolence, while the subordinates are placated by the (condescending) sops of respect.

Enter the “poor but happy” cultural trope, and the “rich and unhappy, stressed out, or overburdened”.

There are cultural myths that support the status quo.

Finally, I loved this quote from Sapolsky (edited for brevity):

Imagine texts bouncing along and across the trenches saying “This is bullshit. None of us here want to fight anymore”
They could have ended it, tossed down their guns, ignored or ridiculed or killed any objecting officer spouting obscenities about God and country, could have gone home to kiss their loved ones and then face the real enemy, the bloated aristocracy who would sacrifice them for their own power.

I’m not a leftist, but I love that attitude.
I think it’s important to learn more about manipulation, so check out:

Manipulation: Techniques, Strategies, & Ethics

More Wisdom

  • The Bonobos are not friendly and “peace and love”, as some authors imply. Instead, they are nasty to one another just like any other species
  • The bystander effect, such as people not helping when there are lots of people around, holds for non-emergency situations, but in dangerous situations, the more people there are around, the more likely they are to step forward
  • Men are more aggressive or prosocial depending on what confers status: when there are women around men tend to be more risk-taking and more aggressive. But when status is achieved through pro-social actions, men are more pro-social
  • High-density living doesn’t increase aggression: high-density living is a bit like alcohol and testosterone: it makes more aggressive individuals more aggressive. But more submissive individuals also become more submissive in conditions of high-density living
  • Humans are not polygynous nor monogamous: we’re in between, a confused species that can go either way
  • Alpha chimps are not the highest in testosterone: the highest in testosterone were the younger males who started lots of fights they couldn’t finish. The only period when T predicted rank was during group formation when fights were more common. Otherwise, the link between power and T is not high
  • Brawn gets you to power, brain keeps you there: getting power is about aggression and strength, but staying in power is about social skills
  • Mirror Neurons are overblown: the author takes aim at Ramachandran, author of “Phantoms in The Brain” and a notorious “mirror neurons enthusiast”. Sapolsky says he got “a bit too giddy about mirror neurons”, and he adds: “I’m not trying to harp on Ramachandran, but how can you resist someone brilliant handing out sound bites like calling mirror neurons “Gandhi neurons”? (also see “self-help myths“)
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature is wrong: Sapolsky joins statistician and philosopher Nicholas Nassim Taleb in criticizing Steven Pinker’s work and “naive optimism”,
  • Religiosity doesn’t predict support for terrorism, it’s the attitudes of those around: It’s not how much one prays that predicts intergroup hostility, it’s being surrounded by coreligionists who affirm parochial identity, commitment, and shared loves and hatreds
  • Religious people act nicer(?) Some studies report more charitable acts towards in-group, but others show no correlation. The discrepancy partially arises when the data is self-reported, as religious people want to be seen -and see themselves- as more charitable. But it does seem that religious cues boost prosociality
  • The bystander effect: The bystander effect happens when there is no real threat. But in dangerous situations the more people, the more likely they are to act
  • Action requires detachment: too much empathy can overwhelm people and cause them to do nothing or to withdraw. Action requires empathy, but also the ability to detach oneself and think clearly. Adolescents sometimes can be too empathic
  • People are poor fighters: people are generally poor fighters. Fists break during fights, and most people just scuffle with little damage to each other. Most people are also afraid of fights. Footage of football hooliganism shows most are on the sidelines 
  • We mature late because of our complex societies: human children mature very slowly, and this is in part because it takes time to evolve, adapt and learn to the point that we can be effective in our complex societies
  • Epigenetics: it’s both genes and environments: most complex personal traits are not caused by genes, but influenced by genes, which in turn are influenced by our environments in how and when they express themselves
behave book cover


I loved “Behave“.

Yet, there are important notes:

Too Much on The Plate

Few academics have the courage to say it.
But here it is: there is such a thing as “too long”.

The ability to sum up evidence to provide an overview and make a point is an important skill.
I understand authors want to write “defining operas” of their life’s work, or show how deeply they researched. 
But that doesn’t serve the readers well.

Behave ends up being too long, especially the chapters describing how the brain works.

Lots of Personal Opinions (& A Bit Politically Motivated)

Sometimes the author seems to look into science to reach leftist political conclusions.

For example, he says that “nothing says that a man can’t provide the same attachment as a mother”, and that seemed a bit of a stretch.

Or that “other countries would be baffled by Americans voting for the most likable person” when Bush, a conservative, won out against Kerry, the liberal.
But he should know people are pretty much the same all over.

The book is also full of barbs towards the rich and politically conservative. The rich, for example, seem to invent the cultural trope of “poor but happy”. But who says that it’s not the poor who come up with it to feel better about themselves?

Bashing of Agriculture: The Clear Sign of Ideological Bias

Here we are again.

This is a popular view among left-wing authors, for example, Jared Diamond -“Guns, Germs, and Steel“; The Third Chimpanzee“-, and Yuval Noah –Sapiens-.

Allow me some sarcasm now.
You gotta love the “agricultural myth” of the left wing. You ascribe to it, and you get in exchange a set of magical rose-tinted glasses. You put them on, and they take you to a wonderful and pristine past of equality, freedom, and blithe.

Let’s imagine for a second that agriculture really was “bad”, somehow.
It still remains to be explained how millions of people were stupid enough to keep planting and harvesting, never looking back to their past of hunting and gathering.
Or how come agriculture conquered the world, together with the populations that used it?

But hey, maybe modern authors know better what was good for them.

And “Behave” reminds us what are the agricultural ills that those dumb ancestors of us didn’t realize when they switched to it.
Agriculture made us all sedentary, “overly dependent” on a few crops and animals only, “vulnerable to droughts”, and even led us to “do something that no other primates do: live near our feces”.
But finally, eventually, we get to the crux: agriculture instituted inequality.

That’s what Sapolsky says.
And there we are, finally: agriculture sucks because it brought inequality.
Now at least we know where the author’s heart lies.

Such a pity that such an enlightened author, of such a wonderful book, had to fall for the politicization of history.

Sometimes Random Studies Generalized 

Sapolsky says that “when it comes to Eternity, sticks apparently work better than carrots”.
He says that based on a study “showing” that the greater the skew towards belief in hell as opposed to heaven, the lower the crime rates.

But the study was based on 67 countries, and I just can’t see how one can isolate tens of other variables, which, in my opinion, all account far more than “a bias towards heaven or hell” -ie.: poverty, inequality, education, etc., etc.-.


I listed lots of cons, but “Behave” is a masterpiece.

I especially loved Sapolsky’s scientific approach.
His willingness to go beyond the immediate correlations, to look for discordant information, and to truly dig for the deeper causes.

Sapolsky’s last message is what a true scientist and searcher of truth should always remember:

It’s complicated.
And it depends.

And that’s why, my friends, you always need to be watchful of those who proselytize on a few simple, over-generalized concepts.
Yes, they might seem charismatic
But they probably don’t have either truth, or your best interest in mind.


Behave is a majestic book that goes deep into human nature, enlightens on many important topics, and dispels many myths and generalizations.

It provided much information for my own work, including a couple of future articles and my own course “Power University”.

Its only limitation, in my opinion, is its own strength: by providing such a vast, interdisciplinary overview, the reader might end up overwhelmed, and walk away with little practical information.

What may have made it even better is a coherent thread that pulls everything together.
Sapolsky speaks of the need for a general, interdisciplinary approach, but “Behave” still feels like a hotpot mixture, albeit a tasty one.

I leave with one great quote from Sapolsky:

Anyone who says that our worst behaviors are inevitable knows too little about primates.
Including us.

Check the

or get the book on Amazon

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